Judge Gordon Sullivan fears vampires, mummies, and Jimmy Buffett.
Step inside a madhouse of horror
With neither the ad dollars and viewership levels of the networks nor the budgets and prestige of the premium cable channels, basic cable is always in a tough bind. FX, however, has figured out a way out of this particular problem with a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, it puts together shows that push against the edges of what can be broadcast on basic cable. Shows like The Shield and Rescue Me dealt with themes and situations that were on the far side of "adult" for most cable shows. On the other side, they also have a habit of giving creators tremendous freedom in exchange for working within a certain budget. Louis C.K.'s Louie is a perfect example; as long as he comes in under budget and viewers watch it, the network lets him do pretty much whatever he wants. These two strategies are nowhere more evident than in American Horror Story. Ryan Murphy (who co-created the show with Brad Falchuk) already had a hit for the channel with Nip/Tuck, so when he proposed a horror series that would tell season-long, self-contained stories with recurring cast members playing different roles each season, it would have been career suicide anywhere else. Though the first season won a lot of eyeballs and critical praise, the idea is truly redeemed in this excellent second season, which transports the action across the country for American Horror Story: Asylum.
Facts of the Case
The basic idea of American Horror Story is that the show will use individual episodes to tell us a horror story about some aspect of the show's setting, while also telling some season-long story about the characters we see. In Asylum, we're at the Briarcliff Mental Institution in 1964 Massachusetts. The asylum is run primarily by nuns, headed up by the sadistic Sister Jude (Jessica Lange, Cape Fear) with the help of Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe, What Just Happened). They're assisted by Dr. Arden (James Cromwell, L.A. Confidential) and Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek Into Darkness). Things start to go awry when notorious killer Kit Walker (Evan Peters, Kick-Ass) claims to be unjustly incarcerated and is believed by reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson, Serenity), a lesbian who is also committed to the asylum. All thirteen episodes are included on three discs of American Horror Story: Asylum (Blu-ray).
Two major problems kept me from loving the first season of American Horror Story. The first is the fact that I didn't like any of the characters. Pretty much everyone was a petty jerk out for themselves, or else hopelessly naïve about the situation in the house. Even when a tragic past excused a lot of the more reprehensible situations, I found myself caring very little episode to episode. The second problem is that all of the horror centers around the supernatural. If ghosts and haunted houses don't freak you out, then there's little about the season that's actually scary. The show tried to weave in some everyday anxieties about middle-class money woes, but by and large it was a ghost-fest, and I just couldn't get into it.
All that changed with Asylum. This time we've got characters to root for thanks to the machinations of Sister Jude. Kit Walker seems to be innocent, and even if he did commit the crimes he's accused of (I'm certainly not telling), he believes in his own innocence enough to charm audiences. The real center of the series, though, is Sarah Paulson as Lana Winters, the unlawfully incarcerated reporter. Though it's not always easy to overlook her zeal for a story, the fact of her being committed without cause to the horrifying setting of a 1960s asylum is enough to win viewer sympathy. There are also, at least to my mind, more compelling villains this time out as well. James Cromwell plays a dastardly scientist, but the lion's share of the evil goes to Jessica Lange's Sister Jude.
The show also doesn't rely on the supernatural all that often. The show opens with what may be an alien abduction, and we're supposed to take for granted that demonic possession is a possibility, but most of the horror this season relies on the terror of person against person. I don't want to spoil too many of the wonderful twists and turns the season takes, but on both an episode-by-episode and seasonal-arc count, Asylum improves on its predecessor.
Then, of course, there's the acting. After about the third episode, I was getting annoyed that Joseph Fiennes and Zachary Quinto get top billing. Don't get me wrong; both acquit themselves admirably. However, Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson are the beating heart of this season of the show. Rabe's transformation is particularly a thing of joy to watch, and Paulson gets to stretch in the satisfying coda that closes out the season. Of course Lange and Cromwell, along with Evan Peters, deserve their plaudits as well—heck, all of the cast do, including guest Chloe Sevigny—but I can't over-praise Paulson and Rabe.
I also can't really over-praise American Horror Story: Asylum (Blu-ray). The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers included here are top-notch. The show is dark and stylized, so don't expect reference-quality visuals. Instead, the gritty, sometimes-glowing transfers preserve the intentionally manipulated look of the show. Expect loads of detail, especially in faces and the gorgeous locations, but also the occasional bit of noise in darker scenes. Though not perfect in a technical sense, this set's visuals are perfect for the show. The audio is just as effective. From the creepy score under the credits to all the creeks and groans of Briarcliff, the DTS-HD 5.1 audio track delivers. Dialogue is perfectly audible throughout, and the surrounds really establish the atmosphere of the asylum, especially in the overly crowded dayroom.
Extras include 7 minutes of deleted scenes spread over the last two discs of the set, while three featurettes also appear on Disc Three. These featurettes, which total a little under an hour of material, focus on the production design, the creature effects, and an EPK-style behind-the-scenes look. We also get a 9-minute short film that offers us another story set in Briarcliff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I admit a bit of personal bias when reviewing Asylum. Being committed to an asylum unjustly is high on my list of scary situations. Even if that doesn't freak you out, the general condition of mental institutions in the not-so-distant past probably should. I will also admit that there are a few uneven spots in the season. The show doesn't wrap all the threads up in the final episode, instead giving us some closure a bit earlier in some plotlines. That means the last couple of episodes can feel a bit patched together, and not all viewers are going to be happy with how quickly certain stories wrap up.
American Horror Story is some of the best TV out there right now. It's a horror fan's dream to have a legitimately scary show on the air. With this second season, the show has demonstrated the rich resources that can be brought to scare. Combining the show's compelling story and amazing acting with the excellent American Horror Story: Asylum (Blu-ray) release means this set is easy to recommend for purchase. The best part is, even if you missed the first season, you can jump in and get right to the frights.
Spooky, but not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2013 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.